Friday, September 30, 2016

Introducing the Cyprus International Food Festival

The culinary scene in Cyprus has improved by leaps and bounds since I moved here ten years ago. The quality and diversity of the cuisine on offer is remarkable considering where the island was upon my arrival. Case in point, my first meal here—a rubbery, overcooked steak sandwich at Le Cafe, one of the better eateries at the time. As more Cypriots travel abroad and cheat on souvla, pastitsio and koupepia with exotic foods, local restaurateurs and chefs become emboldened to open new establishments that push the envelope for The Rock's (still somewhat) uncomplicated standards.

The latest in this group of—let's call them mavericks—is Saskia Constantinou, the woman behind Apollon Connections, a local organiser of international concerts and festivals. In collaboration with other like-minded individuals, Saskia will host the first Cyprus International Food Festival (CIFF) later this year and she took some time off her organizational duties to talk to us about the event and other issues in Cyprus' wine and food scene.

What led you to develop the 2016 Cyprus International Food Festival? How has this effort been received by people in the food and beverage sector?

Saskia Constantinou (SC): I’ve been involved in classical music most of my life, firstly as an orchestral musician in the National Symphony Orchestra of South Africa and in subsequent years as an organiser of international concerts and festivals. I wanted to diversify and realised that food and eating is something everyone does many times a day! So it wouldn’t ever lose its universal appeal and the scope and potential was huge. 

The Festival has been well received by those in the industry, although I can say that those in the international arena have responded with far greater enthusiasm and excitement by the prospect than some of the locals. I think it’s very much a matter of having to prove oneself the first time.

What types of activities have been planned for the two-day event? Any specific ones you are really excited to host?

SC: The festival will include chefs preparing foods that represent their national cuisine. This year we have representation from India, South Africa, Hungary, France and Cyprus. Next year, we will expand and offer an even greater selection. Local and international wineries will offer free wine tastings and we also have a cava area. Children, future generations and sustainability play an important role in our focus and mission, so we have the Cookery School of Cyprus giving organised classes for children throughout the two days. There will be of course lots of vendors with items to both sample and buy in larger quantities.

During the past five years, Cyprus has been exposed to a greater number of cuisines from regions beyond the Mediterranean. Which particular cuisines will be highlighted at the festival? In what ways?

SC: As above – We have had great interest from chefs around the world to participate in the 2017 event and will develop this section extensively next year.

High-end chefs throughout the world have made names for themselves and their countries by showcasing strictly local ingredients in an avant-garde manner. Alex Atala, Gastón Acurio, Magnus Nilsson and René Redzepi all come to mind. Is Cyprus ready for this sort of experience? Are there local chefs who could spearhead such a movement?

SC: There is absolutely no reason for local chefs not to take up this direction. Is Cyprus ready? Difficult question – we are always lagging behind because of small issues, which are made big and complicated. I am trying to collaborate with all those who are forward thinking and innovative – I believe that greater strides can be made when working in a team. After all, a restaurant doesn’t operate without a team! Everyone has a role to play. 

The Cypriot wine industry has taken off during the past ten years with better and better vintages being released each year. In your opinion, what is at the root of this improvement and what needs to be done to better compete in the local market?

SC: This is a difficult question for me to answer as I’m not an expert in that industry specifically. However, generally, I believe that competition is very healthy and forces higher standards. I believe that it is not a matter of competition in the local market that is important, but rather in the international arena. There’s no reason that Cyprus should not have a greater global impact with its products. This is something which needs long term planning, goals and a clearly defined strategy. I do not believe or accept the excuse that we are a small country. 

What is your Five-Year Plan for the Cyprus International Food Festival?

SC: Big plans and dreams which I don’t want to reveal at the moment. I would love this one to be a success, and then build on that, and improve all those areas which may not run as smoothly on the first one! 

One Cypriot dish matched with one local wine. What, where and with whom?

SC: I don’t like large meals, so my ideal would be grilled calamari or octopus, a fresh village salad (no onions) with a 2011 Levanda Rosé on a beach, served with full cutlery and starched, crisp white table cloths with a man who shall remain un-named.

Hope to see y'all at CIFF 2016 to be held on the weekend of November 5th and 6th at STOA Nicosia from 11 am to 7 pm!

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